As fall draws near, so does the desire for yams. They are deliciously rich in vitamins and flavor, so what’s not to love? However, when we are talking about the wild yam, it isn’t what you think.
For centuries, Native Americans and early Americans have used wild yam for possible benefits ranging from estrogen therapy and natural progesterone to treating diverticulosis, gallbladder pain, rheumatoid arthritis, as well as offering increased energy. It has even been used by women to reduce hot flashes and treating colic in infants.
However, it is the chemical diosgenin that provides relief of these health issues. What’s important to note is that our bodies do not convert the chemical into the estrogen hormone — that must be done in a laboratory. Regardless, this makes it a phytoestrgoen food, meaning it comes from plants that could produce estrogen therapy and menopausal relief.
If you are looking for wild yam, you probably won’t find it in the produce section, but rather in the supplement section as a dried root, dried root powder, capsule or liquid.
1. Potentially Regulates Blood Sugar
The U.S. National Library of Medicine suggests that wild yam may help regulate blood sugar. This is believed to be due to a substance called dioscoretine and has been studied showing positive results. (1)
Research from the Phytotherapy Research Laboratory at the University of Nigeria found that blood sugar was lowered in diabetic rabbits when administered dioscoretine that was extracted from tubers. (2)
2. May Fight Cancer
A study was conducted in Japan to help determine if wild yam could help reduce the risks of cancer. The study was provoked due to the extensive use for wellness benefits in Japan. While further research is needed, the researchers did find that the rhizome within in the wild yam plant — which produces the major compound dioscin — possessed antiproliferative effects on leukemia cells. (3)
Although it’s often used as a supplement, in northern part of Japan wild yam is consumed as a health food, and this research shows it may be a cancer-fighting food.
Furthermore, research published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine found “that wild yam extract acts as a weak phytoestrogen and protects against proliferation in human breast carcinoma MCF-7 cells.” (4)
3. Improves Cholesterol Levels
According to a study published in the Journal of Lipid Research, the diosgenin found in wild yam may help raise good HDL cholesterol and lower LDL (the “bad” cholesterol). In the study, rats were given wild yam for a period of one week to determine if diosgenin suppresses cholesterol absorption, and it was found the rats had better HDL to LDL ratio. (5)
Another study conducted on mice and rats suggests that supplementation using wild yam may be beneficial in controlling hypercholesterolemia. (6)
4. Offers Diverticulosis Relief
Wild yam may help treat a disorder of the intestines called diverticulosis. This happens when small pouches form on the colon wall. If they get inflamed, they are are referred to as diverticulosis and can be very painful, resulting in constipation and diarrhea and even fever at times.
Records indicate that diverticulosis is found in 30 percent to 40 percent of people over the age of 50, and it is caused by a highly refined low-fiber diet. So how does wild yam help with diverticulosis?
Wild yam is known to be be a good anti-spasmodic and anti-inflammatory. As an anti-spasmodic, it may help reduce any pain caused by abdominal cramping around the inflamed area. A tincture of wild yam, valerian, cramps bark and peppermint may offer relief. (7)
5. May Help Reduce Photoaging
Studies indicate that the disogenin found in wild yam extract may have a “depigmenting effect.” This means it could help with issues such as melasma, melanodermatitis and sun lentigo — issues that ultimately result in hyperpigmentation. Hyperpigmentation is harmless and rather common, but it can be frustrating since it is a skin condition that develops, rather noticeably, as darker patches of skin. (8)
Let’s learn more about wild yam — and with over 600 species of wild yam, there is a lot to learn. The wild yam is an herb, or plant, known as colic root. Of those 600 species, only about 12 of them are edible.
While I have noted a few possible benefits, you may be wondering what are the uses of wild yam. There is one potential myth that we need to review. One of the original uses relates to hormones and women, but it has not been proven to be a replacement for estrogen.
Even more uses for wild yam have included treating diverticulosis, gallbladder issues, colic, cramps, rheumatoid arthritis and as human steroids. Again, I want to reiterate that some benefits that are related to hormone therapy needs more studies, and as far as we know, the conversion to hormones happens in the lab — not simply from consuming some version of wild yam.
So what about menopause relief? It has been claimed by many as a great way to reduce menstrual symptoms and assist with hormone replacement during menopause, but does it really work? According to a recent study, maybe not so much.
A study was conducted using a wild yam cream, similar to what you may think of as progesterone cream, in 23 healthy women who were experiencing menopause. Three months into the study, results showed that there were no significant changes concluding that while there are no side effects. There were also little to no effects on menopausal symptoms overall. (10)
Now, as an anti-spasmodic, it can help with coughs, spasms and nausea. Use the recipe below:
Wild Yam Recipe for Coughs, Spasms and Nausea
- 8 ounces chopped fresh wild yam root (or 4 ounces of dried)
- 4–5 cups of water
- 1–2 drops peppermint essential oil
- 1 sprinkle of pure stevia to taste (optional)
- In a sauce pan, cover the chopped fresh wild yam root with water and bring to boil.
- Reduce heat and allow it simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.
- Strain, add the peppermint and stevia.
- Have ½ cup, twice a day.
- Store in refrigerator.
Wild Yam vs. Yam vs. Mexican Yam vs. Sweet Potato
Wild yam is mainly used as a supplement due to the DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) it contains, which is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that are made into supplements. It grows best in flooded freshwater marshes and swamps, non-tidal shrub swamps, roadside ditches, and forested wetlands throughout the eastern United States. Inland, wild yam is found growing as a vine on shrubs.
Mexican Yam (Jicama)
You may have heard and even eaten jicama. That would be the Mexican yam and is a member of the Fabaceae (pea) family. It is a perennial that grows in areas that do not get frost. Jicama, often served in salads, is found in U.S. supermarkets, but it’s imported from Mexico and the Caribbean. Only the root of Mexican yam can be consumed. All other parts, including stems, leaves, flowers, pods and seeds, contain rotenone, a natural pesticide not safe for eating.
According to the Library of Congress, yams are native to Africa and Asia and are closely related to lilies and grasses. Yams come in different sizes but are usually similar to the size of a small potato. They contain more starch and are drier than sweet potatoes.
Sweet potato is the one you probably know most since it is the the yam you see at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. Technically known as ipomoea batatas, the sweet potato yam is not related to to the Mexican yam or wild yam, but you have seen them in the produce department. They range in skin color from white to yellow, red, purple or brown, and the flesh ranges in color from white to yellow, orange or orangish-red. These varieties are usually classified as either firm or soft and maintaining a soft or firm consistency, respectively, when cooked. The soft varieties are typically labeled as yams here in the U.S.
It is important to consider a few factors regarding the correct dosage of wild yam. Age and health condition of the individual are important, especially if pregnant. It is always best to consult a physician, especially since there really isn’t enough evidence about wild yams at this time. Follow the directions on labels, and check with your health care provider first.
Wild yam is usually found as a liquid extract, dried herb or as a powder as capsules or tablets. The liquid version can be made into tea. You can also purchase creams containing wild yam, but remember that unless it has been to a laboratory, it likely does not contain the chemical needed to affect hormones. Our bodies do not convert it naturally. You can also add it to a tincture — ask your doctor about the best application.
Regarding children, I don’t recommend it. There simply isn’t enough data to support its safety. Wild yam is often combined with other herbs known to have estrogen-like effects, namely black cohosh. Wild yam creams, tablets and powders may contain synthetic hormones since they are produced in labs. Check the ingredients carefully and consult a doctor.
Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to help with menstrual cramps and childbirth. The parts used are the dried roots or rhizome. Additionally, it was used for upset tummies and coughs. The roots of the wild yam contain diosgenin, a plant-based estrogen the can convert into the hormone known as progesterone. Probably the most familiar use of disogenin is the birth control pill, which was first produced in the 1960s.
Some common names for wild yam are:
- Aluka (Sanskrit name)
- China root
- Colic root
- Devil’s bones
- Mexican wild yam
- Pleurisy root
- Rheumatism root
- Shan-yao (Chinese name)
- Red velvet yam
- Cinnamon yam
A perennial vine, wild yam is typically the long, slender and knotted tuberous rootstock of the plant. The leaves are heart-shaped, growing anywhere from two to six inches long and nearly as wide. The lower leaves often grow in twos and fours, and the plant contains small greenish-yellow flowers that smell a lot like cinnamon. Many of the varieties develop edible tubers much like potatoes. The ornamental variety is D. batatas, which is often called Chinese yam, red velvet yam or cinnamon yam.
History suggests it has been used to make the first birth control pills before the synthetic versions were available and has been used to relieve digestive issues, asthma and gastritis. Additionally, it has been reported that Native Americans used wild yam to help relieve pains associated with childbirth.
Risks and Side Effects
I cannot stress enough that there are insufficient studies on wild yam. Therefore, you need to consult with a doctor or herbalist first, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, suffer from any disease or are taking medication.
The University of Maryland Medical Center warns that wild yam extract could cause problems if you are currently taking estradiol, which is an active ingredient that may be in your birth control pill or hormone replacement therapy. Allergic reactions are possible, so it is best to stop taking wild yam extract if you experience rashes, swelling of the tongue or lips, difficulty breathing, or throat swelling.
Wild yam has many purported uses and benefits, but insufficient scientific data exists for some of them, such as menopause relief and hormonal balance. However, the the top five proven benefits of wild yam include:
- Potentially Regulates Blood Sugar
- May Fight Cancer
- Improves Cholesterol Levels
- Offers Diverticulosis Relief
- May Help Reduce Photoaging
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